Friday, March 28, 2008

"The Government Inspector": ☼ ☼ ☼ baub

It's very funny, it's timely and it's only 172 years old. Nikolai Gogol's "The Government Inspector" is a satire on government, the relationship between the distant capital and the heartland, and a study of what can happen to good judgement when bureaucrats are afraid of getting caught with their hands in the cookie jar.

Don't judge the production by the first fifteen minutes, which, with all its topsy turvy sets and slapstick dialogue seems staged and artificial; once Gregory Wallace hits the stage as the most fortunate Khlestakov, we are all in for a wild ride which does not diminish until the final curtain. Khlestakov is a petty bureaucrat from the national capital of Petersburg who has stopped in a small town for the night, on his way to a neighboring village where he can beg his father for more money. But he cannot leave the inn because he has run out of funds to pay the bill.

It just so happens that at that moment the Mayor of the town (Graham Beckel) has heard that a very important government inspector is on his way to the town. That inspector will uncover all the dirty doings of the town's leaders, unless these leaders can manage to bribe him with praise, favors and plenty of cash. Once Khlestakov is mistaken for the we go.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ baub

The San Francisco Theater blog Awards Division awards "The Government Inspector" a star and a half for Gregory Wallace, all by himself. We have enjoyed him in many previous roles, but as Khlestakov Wallace allows us to watch his entire transformation from debt-ridden fey dandy from the big city to a big-enough fish in a small, slightly polluted pond. Once he discovers there is ample money and praise available, he is more than happy to swim out to get it.

Another half a star goes out for Graham Beckel's Mayor. He walks, talks and philosophizes a little too much like Tevye, but he earns half a star for reminding us we are not watching Fiddler on the Roof. There is no nostalgia for a lost world here, only the rude realization that life is not so different in the new world as in the old.

A half star is for Beaver Bauer's voluminous coats -- sometimes you're not sure there's an actor in there, just a coat, a hat and klunky boots; the last half star is for the priceless bribery scene, where all the big wigs in town line up to pay off the man they think is the inspector. How did Gogol know so much about us, anyway?

We must add one Bauble of Despair: the Snore of Death that continues during the entire intermission. Maybe that's why they decided to serve shots of vodka in the lobby. Turn it down, please, or you'd better keep pouring the vodka.

The Government Inspector
American Conservatory Theater
405 Geary Street, San Francisco
Tue-Sun through April 20; $17-$82

Monday, March 24, 2008

"Tragedy: A Tragedy: " ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

The sun has gone down. Night has fallen. The Local Channel Three News Team is on location, attempting to cover the story. "We're staying on top of things, trying to get to the bottom of things," says news anchor Frank in the Studio, played to perfection by David Cromwell. He seems to be wearing Walter Cronkite's shirt.

Frank is communicating by telephone with Constance (Marquerite Stimpson), who is standing in front of a house where no one is home, trying to cull some meaning from the fact that it is dark outside and getting darker. "Whenever something happens, something does," she says.

Also on the story is John in the Field (Thomas Jay Ryan), who gets to mouth most of the show's best philosophical zingers. He appears to be having a stroke, but that doesn't stop Frank from asking: "Any thoughts, John?" "Not really."

The last field reporter is legal analyst Michael, played John Stewart Show-like by Max Gordon Moore. He mostly reports from the steps of city hall where he reads dispatches from the Governor. Those hand-written dispatches get crazier and crazier until the Governor abdicates his office by crawling out the window and sliding down a drainpipe ("Thank you for your confidence, which I will now betray.").

On the surface, Will Eno's "Tragedy: a Tragedy" is a satire on the vapidity of TV News, but that's just the funny part. The real issue is that there is no story to cover, which reveals how empty all the reporters' lives (and all of ours?) are. The longer these poor souls doggedly attempt to pull some meaning out of the fact that night has fallen, the more deeply they sink into their own personal angst.

Remember: "Tragedy: A Tragedy" is not a tragedy. It's a comedy, but it's carrying a knife. John in the field has the final say. Stumped for anything else to report, he decides to recite the alphabet: "A-B-C-D-E-F-G---but you all know how that turns out."

RATINGS: "Tragedy: A Tragedy" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Tragedy: A Tragedy" a star for Will Eno's vision, another star for Antje Ellermann's very cool set, and a star for all the belly laughs. Belly laughs are worth a star all by themselves, even when you're the only one laughing. There are too many wonderful lines to single them all out, but a special BANGLE of Praise is awarded for the way John in the Field, blood running from his nose, sums up everyone's situation: "Why was I born to stand outside talking about people inside?"

And now, from a chair in an office somewhere in a dank writer's cavern in central San Francisco, this is me, with a message of hope for my readers: "Be brave. Go out and Loot."

"Tragedy: A Tragedy"
Berkeley Repertory Theater, Thrust Stage
2025 Addison Street, Berkeley
Tue-Sun. through April 13; $33-$69

Sunday, March 23, 2008

"Coronado": ☼ ☼ 1/2 BANG baub

So, you're saying that he...wait a minute, you mean the diamond was...hold on, Gwen and Gina were, stop, whose mother?

Dennis Lehane's "Coronado" is a play that you don't decipher until you're halfway home, and only if you live a good distance from SF Playhouse. On the surface, you've got three different stories taking place in a country bar dominated by a Budweiser sign. First to the stage are the two hot lovers ("I could spread you on a cracker and eat you whole"), soon to be joined by her husband.

Then we meet the more mature couple, one of whom is hot to trot and the other is her shrink...

Finally we run into the father and son who not only despise each other but are about to divulge a nasty little family secret.

Thus endeth Act One. Something is brewing: it's hard to say what. But it doesn't take more than a few minutes into Act Two to realize these three stories are not unrelated, and, in fact, in only a few minutes...well that's all we're going to say about the plot. If you're not sure what happens, ask your wife in the car.

Walking out of the theater, one audience member said: "God! That was so dark!" Well, it is, but it's also a fascinating exercise on playing with time. No one who saw Sean Penn in Lehane's "Mystic River" could be surpised by depressing characters; still, it has to be said that each of the nine actors in the cast are damned to Hell before they leave the green room. Nobody deserves to be saved; that anyone survives by the final curtain is probably only because Lehane ran out of printer paper.

Especially noteworthy in the cast are Chad Deverman as young Bobby, who plays him with a vulnerable scowl; Stacy Ross as older Gina, world-weary but with a reason, as we come to find out; and Will Springhorn, Junior, who changes from callow recipient of sexual favors to someone whose nastiness almost starts to make sense. Too bad his character ends up in the bottom of the, well, you know.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ 1/2 BANG baub

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Coronado" one entire star for not spoon feeding the audience, even when a little spoon or a tiny straw poking up out of the muck might have been helpful; one star for the way director Susi Damilano has managed to integrate three complex stories on a small stage; and an extra half star for the one truism voiced by author Lehane in the mouth of older Gina: "Without sacrifice, all we have is infatuation." Think about that one for a second.

One Bangle of Praise is awarded for the convincing way Springhorn turns to young Gina and says "Let's Kill Him." It sounds reasonable to us too. There is one Bauble of Despair also: how in the world does Bobby convince his bad-ass Papa to climb into the grave, holding nothing other than a knife the size of a Swiss Army Hangnail Clipper?

Two and a half stars BANG baub for "Coronado," and if it were a series we'd tune in for the next episode.

San Francisco Playhouse
533 Sutter Street San Francisco
Wed.-Sat. $38

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

"25 Questions for a Jewish Mother": ☼☼ 1/2 BANG

If you're the costumer's or set designer's union, you can't be crazy about Judy Gold's '25 Questions for a Jewish Mother' -- the entire set is one arm chair and one mike stand and Gold is dressed like -- well, like every other 6'3" Kosher-keeping lesbian comedienne with two children.

But if you're in the audience and you're Jewish, or you married a Jew, or you have a hairdresser named Brenda, or you've lived for half an hour in New York City or Encino, or you watch Curb Your Enthusiasm and cover your eyes, you're gonna howl. Judy Gold starts screeching the minute she walks out onto the stage and says Hah-loooo-wwww ("Hello")! The woman has lived amongst the New Jersey Sector of the Tribe and, sister, she's got their accents down cold.

Gold's primary protagonist, and the source of most of her material, is her mother, who is so worried about the fate of the Jewish people that instead of Good Night Moon she makes her small child Judith read (drum roll) the Pop Up version of the Diary of Anne Frank. Of course, like all Jewish women, Judith is terrified she'll grow up to be just like her Mother. After her children are born (hysterical sketch about ordering a la carte from the Sperm Bank), she discovers, to her horror, that she has.

The voices start to grate after awhile and there is nothing particularly revelatory in the comedy; however, the genius of '25 Questions' is the acting out of the stories of many of the women Gold and her co--writer Kate Moira Ryan actually interviewed in gathering material for the show. These stories are not supposed to make you laugh -- they make you ponder for a moment, before Gold reappears as herself and hits you in the eye with a cream pie. The juxtaposition of broad humor and tragic tales is a brilliant one.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards '25 Questions for a Jewish Mother' a star and a half for Judy Gold and Kate Moira Ryan, because the writing is excellent as well as novel; one more star has to be given to Gold herself for that screech. A BANGLE of Praise is also awarded for what the little doll called George Bush. (HINT: she is now on the Must Search List at all US airports.) Though it's hard to award more stars to a one person, basically one-dimensional comedy routine, '25 Questions' is very, very funny and well worth seeing.

EXTRA OBSERVATION: People with longer legs can sit very comfortably in the aisle seats of the side sections at Marine's Memorial Theater -- the seats slant and your legs can breathe, it's a mitzvah.

'25 Questions for a Jewish Mother'
Marine's Memorial Theater
Sutter and Mason Streets, San Francisco
Tue-Sun through March 23; $39-$49

Sunday, March 2, 2008

"Orlando": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

The A.C.T. Master's Class's version of Virginia Woolf's 'Orlando,' playing at Zeum through March 15, is one of those stage rarities -- the play is good but the performance is even better. Not that 'Orlando' didn't bend a lot of heads when it first appeared in 1928, with its gender-crossing theme of a young duke making his observations of life, first as an Elizabethan man and then as a Victorian woman. But the way playwright Sarah Ruhl has modernized the show without getting too cute, combined with a strong cast who keeps our attention for each of the 90 minutes without an intermission, makes us put off the ultimate question until we're in the car driving home: is it weirder that Orlando was a man and also a woman, or that he/she managed to live close to 375 years and still look positively fetching?

That latter quandry is the fault of Caitlin Talbot, who is as beautiful in the 21st Century as she would have been in the 16th. It is a nuanced role -- Academy Award Winner Tilda Swinton played Orlando in the 1992 movie -- and Talbot pulls it off flawlessly. She's funny, too, as are the five supporting actors, four of whom are also the on-stage sound effects crew (the fifth is Tovah Suttle, who plays the Russian vamp Sasha, strutting back and forth in her white fur hat).

'Orlando,' in the wrong hands, could be teeth-grittingly campy. But not here. It makes you laugh and think, and in that order. Perfect.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards 'Orlando' one star for Caitlin Talbot's performance as a man and as a woman, and another half for sticking to her poetry until she can call the grass purple. The sound effects boys deserve half a star (we especially loved their skating sounds as Orlando and Sasha skated for miles on the frozen Thames), and director Ryan Rilette's perfect blend of Woolf's words and the young cast's energy gets another half. The last half is for Callie Floor's perfect period costumes -- love the coats. A BANGLE of praise must be given for the choice of Aerosmith's 'Dude Looks Like a Lady' -- she most certainly did.

ZEUM, Yerba Buena Gardens, Fourth and Howard Streets San Francisco
Through Mar 15, Thu-Sun plus one Wednesday (Mar 5)